In white-people grocery stores, the backlit signs shine from a half mile away, the aisles are wide, the floors gleam, and the labels are in English—but the produce is mediocre, the meat is pale, and everything is expensive. This is not true in Little Saigon, up the hill from Chinatown, where grocery stores are hard to find, distinguished outside by boxes of fruit under tarp awnings and inside by imperfect linoleum floors. But there you will discover prices so low, you'll think you've died and gone to 1954.
At Lam's Seafood—which is the best of the grocery stores in the area, and maybe the world—you can't find cheese. (The entire dairy section takes up only the bottom-left quarter of a small cooler, where they stock a few cartons of milk.) But anything else you could ever want to put into your face, to make any food of any cuisine, abounds.
The seafood: Lam's is more than a fishmonger, but we will start in the seafood section—past the stands of jackfruit and durian, through the impossibly narrow aisles, all the way in the back. Tilapia are swimming in massive aquariums, and you can purchase one for $4.49 a pound, and the men behind the counter will turn it into fillets in minutes. Live lobsters are $7.99 a pound. Whole octopus is sold for $2.99 a pound. Bins of snails are $3.29 a pound. All the shellfish are there, tanks of clams and crates of crawfish, and a dozen varieties of finfish with fresh, clear eyes are chilling on a queen-size bed of ice. The halibut flesh is white like taffy, fillets thick as a softball, and it's cheap: $8.99 a pound. I take some halibut home and poach it with garlic for 10 minutes, toss in some vermouth, salt, and cream, and it's amazing. Scallops the size of gerbils are $15.99 for one and a half pounds. Two pounds of massive prawns are $9.49 frozen. You are practically being paid to eat the Pacific Ocean.
The produce: Almost nothing is labeled in English. But if you know what a thing looks like (for instance, a bundle of asparagus for $1.49), you're in clover. Some stuff is loose (five limes for a dollar! Three avocados for a dollar! Guacamole for all!), and lots of other stuff is prebagged (fresh bamboo shoots for $1.29 a pound), wrapped (serrano chilies for $1.49), or tied together (two heads of butter lettuce for $1.29). The roma tomatoes are candy red all the way through and not mealy in the slightest. There's lemongrass, basil, shallots, Greek cucumbers, papayas the color of a sunset, all overflowing from wooden crates.
The meat: You must be warned that an average American can't walk through the Lam's meat department without at least once thinking, "OHMYGODPEOPLEEATTHAT?" Case in point: the pork uteruses ($1.99 a pound). But waltz right past Wilbur's childhood home to rafts of pork belly ($2.99 a pound) or pork shoulder, the King of Meats, only $1.79 a pound. (Since we're on the subject, you really must know how to make a pork shoulder: Salt the meat liberally and let it sit out for an hour, brown the dickens out of it over high heat, pour in a generous bath of chicken stock and some browned onions and carrots, insert the vessel into your oven at 250 degrees, and then walk away for approximately four to five hours. Blessed are the frugal.) Also, rosy chicken, crimson oxtails, marbled steaks—the whole ark.
The tofu: There is a cooler of soy products. The soy milk on a Sunday afternoon is still hot—it's just been made—and has the proper name "soybean juice." There is also tofu. Don't like tofu? You do now. It is still warm when I get it home, and it crumbles into something that could give ricotta an inferiority complex. The label shows it was made on 12th and King—about 150 feet west.
The deli: The deli is so affordable it doesn't even make sense. Rice noodles with barbecued pork and veggies and sauce is $2; barbecued chicken, spring rolls, and sticky rice are all from $1 to $3. There are steam trays of mysterious meats with the bone still in, strange beans and gravies, and other unidentifiable things. You can get those rolls that Vietnamese sandwiches come on and make your own pork-shoulder sandwiches.
Of course, all the other stuff you want to make Asian food is at Lam's, from tamarind paste to fresh rice noodles (new every day, so delicious). But you can get all your white-people food, too—except for cheese.